In summer 2005 a survey, conducted by Generation Next, of 400 men either in or considering word ministry showed significant confusion about what constituted a ‘call’. This is a practical and important question: how do I know that Christ has called me to “prayer and the ministry of the word”?
Rather than start with ourselves, let us begin with Jesus. Jesus has promised to build his church (Matthew 16:18). He has died for her and been raised. As the ascended conqueror he distributes his victory gifts to his people (Ephesians 4:7f), in order that his church shall be built up (1 Corinthians 12:7; 14:5). Every gift is needed, and no Christian is to despise any gift (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). But ‘word’ gifts have a special place, because they equip the people of God for their ministries (Ephesians 4:11-15).
The most important principle to bear in mind is stewardship. When the Lord Jesus has given us a gift, we must use it to build his church (Romans 12:6; 1 Corinthians 12:7). On the last day, the Lord Jesus will ask us, “What use did you make of the gifts I gave you?” So the question is not, “What do I want to do?” but rather, “What am Igifted to do?” We often want to do what we ought not to do, and we shy away from doing what we ought to do.
There is little in the New Testament about the feelings or desires of the people set apart for word ministry. When Paul speaks of those who aspire to be pastors (1 Timothy 3:1) he does not make it clear whether the candidates coming forward in Ephesus were to be encouraged or discouraged in their desire. Probably a bit of both. Some want to do this from wrong motives, perhaps a love of power or prominence, or a love of money. Others don’t want to do it because it is hard. We cannot trust our desires.
Rather than asking what we want, we need to ask what gifts we have been given. So the question is not, ‘How do I discern whether I am called?’ but rather ‘How may I discern what gifts have I been given?’ The answer may be summed up in three statements.
A. Try it and others will tell you!
All believers are called to ministry. We are to throw ourselves wholeheartedly into doing what needs to be done. I am not to expect some prior revelation of my gifts, like a Bank notification of a new PIN number, the envelope arriving secretly from heaven, so that I alone can scratch the paper to reveal my unique gift. Instead, I am to be an active servant.
And as I serve, so the fellowships in which I serve will see what I am gifted at and what I am no good at. The latter experience may be painful, but is usually a part of the process. I remember with some pain having to lead the singing at a school assembly unaccompanied (because the pianist was absent); it became rapidly evident this was not my gift! We do not want ‘prima donnas’ who will not volunteer to help, because ‘this is not my gift’. Rather we want servants who will have a go. So, if you are asked to help in some form of Christian service, say yes if you possibly can. Have a go. And as you do, your brothers and sisters will tell you what you are gifted at and what you are not. They will help us “think with sober judgement” about ourselves (Romans 12:3).
So if you have opportunities to teach the bible, to lead a bible study, to give a talk at a summer venture, preach in church, have a go. Ask a mature Christian to listen critically and to give you (in love!) some honest feedback. Not to crush you (if you did badly) or flatter you (if you did well), but to help you see whether you have in bud a gift for bible teaching.
Incidentally, let us beware of replacing ‘gifts’ with ‘strategy’ in our thinking. We love to plan our lives, to ask and answer the question, “Where will I be of most use to Christ?” It is a fine question. But only the Lord knows the answer.
B. Church leaders will tell you
Leaders will recognise our gifts better than we will. They watch our character, listen to our teaching, see how we relate to others and respond under pressure. This is why the responsibility for the leaders of the future lies with the leaders of the present. Leaders appointed elders (Acts 14:23; Titus 1:5). When Timothy was set apart it was because they recognised his gifting (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6). And then Timothy in his turn is to look out for faithful people to whom he can entrust the message (2 Timothy 2:2).
As Christian leaders seek the next generation of ministers of the word, they will look for four qualities.
1. A Godly Character
They will look first for men and women of godly character. “If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be…” (1 Timothy 3:1ff). The logic of the ‘therefore’ is that because this is a noble task, godliness is vital. The ‘checklists’ in 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 are overwhelmingly moral. Others will judge this better than us. For if we think we are godly, it is a sure sign we are not. Often, their judgement will need to overcome our own reluctance (cf. James 3:1-12).
2. A Clear Gospel
Allied with godly character they will look for a clear and tenacious grasp of the gospel of the Lord Jesus. We must have a clear grasp of this message. But it is not enough to understand it. To be a pastor, we must hold to it tenaciously, be willing not only to teach it positively but also to correct those who teach in error (Titus 1:9). We must be prepared to face opposition and suffer for the name of the Lord Jesus (2 Timothy 1:1-2:13).
3. The Ability to Teach
Twice in the pastoral letters one quality is mentioned that stands out from the rest: the ability to teach (1 Timothy 3:2; 2 Timothy 2:24). The other qualities listed ought to be true of every Christian. But not this one. A godly believer may not have this ability. And yet without this ability it is disastrous for someone to enter pastoral ministry. For this is the ministry of the word, and therefore suitable only for those who can understand and handle words.
4. A Love for People
Lastly, they will look for a love for people. For teaching is more than explanation. No teacher will be heard unless he loves the people he teaches. Paul speaks of the ability to teach in the context of a teacher who is gentle when provoked, prayerful when opposed, and driven by a longing to win his hearers back to God (2 Timothy 2:14-26). Without this love for people, the clearest and cleverest bible scholar in the world is not able to teach.
We live in a very hurried culture and want the answer now. But gifts and character for Christian ministry are to be tested over time. A church leader who lays hands on someone in haste will often have to repent at leisure (1 Timothy 5:22).
One of the most encouraging developments in the UK in recent years has been the growth of ‘testing paths’ by which Christians can, as it were, dip their toes in the waters of word ministry so that together we may gradually discern whether or not this is their gift. I see this week by week in the Cornhill Training Course and 9:38 apprenticeship schemes also have this advantage. If you think Christ may have gifted you for this word ministry, pursue one of these ‘toes in the water’ options if you can.
And then, if leaders affirm your gifts and character as suitable for the ministry of the word, and you are willing to do it, go for it. You may not want to do it, as you might want to go on a Caribbean holiday; but you must be willing to do it (1 Peter 5:2).
Conclusion: you are free to decide!
Finally, remember that the decision is yours before Christ. You must neither let yourself be pressured into pastoral ministry by pushy leaders nor dissuaded by worldly motives. Pray for purity of heart. Listen to wise leaders who know you. And then decide. It is before your own Master you stand or fall; and he is able to make you stand. The rest of us will not sit in judgement upon your decision. No principles in this article will make your decision for you. You decide; and as you decide, the Lord Jesus Christ is building his church. The glory will be his alone.
This article is an abridged version of Chapter 11 in the 9:38 volume Workers for the Harvest Field. At the time of writing, Christopher Ash was Director of the Cornhill Training Course (www.proctrust.org.uk).